Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The silent population-the plight of being a student-parent

College is challenging. Parenting is challenging. Those who succeed at doing both at the same time tend to have help from strong family and friend support networks

Traditional college students complete their college education during their “emerging adulthood” years, usually between the ages of 18 and 24. During this time, college students are facing assignments, experiencing the residence hall lifestyle, and, ideally, carefree of “adult” responsibilities. Some financial responsibilities a student faces may include a new laptop for class, course textbooks and materials, transportation, and perhaps groceries when the dining halls are closed. These concerns apply to many college students, regardless of their “traditional” college status.

However, among these traditional college students, there is a group of “non-traditional” students whose financial responsibilities stretch past the average student. Starting a full-time undergraduate program as a mature learner can be pretty intimidating. Between classes, course work and exams, it can be harder and more demanding than a full-time job. And it’s not easy to blend in with a mostly homogenous student population composed of 18- to 22-year-olds.The phenomenon of becoming a mother or father during the university years is multidimensional in nature. In order to fulfil the responsibilities of both roles, the student needs to muster different resources.

In order for this transformation to be a process rich in positive experiences, the student-parent requires diverse sources of support, in particular the support of family and friends, in addition to support provided by the university institution. The reality is that even though student parents excel in the classroom, they face more challenges than traditional students. They’re managing school and parenting, and, for many, a full- or part-time job might be another ball in the air. There’s also the cost of tuition (for those footing the bill themselves) added on top of other financial obligations such as child care, a mortgage and car payments. It comes as no surprise, then, that they are more likely to withdraw from their studies.

Many undergraduates are also parents. Many of them leave university for lower paying jobs. Some reasons for leaving college early include not having a strong enough support system including friends and family that can pitch in and help when the student parent needs to stay late on campus or when a child is sick. Others cannot overcome the financial burden of paying for college while raising a child.

Many suffer from significant stress that is compounded by juggling two major life transitions at once: becoming a college student and becoming a new parent. The truth is, the reasons student parents leave school isn’t their inability to do well or about school itself or their motivation to go it is actually about external things – they had a sick child; their spouse lost a job; they’re moving somewhere, it is all of these external factors. The biggest challenge is time management, finding that balance between family and work, as a student-parent you have homework, but still have to feed your kids dinner, go to activities and have quality time for/with them.

Dr Poloko Ntshwarang. Social Work Senior lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “Being a parent is difficult, but being a parent and a student often feels like an impossible feat. We are all aware of the issues that face student parents – such as affordable childcare and constraints on time and money, although I’ve found that the everyday things end up being the hardest things when it comes to returning to education as a mother: the inconvenience of sick children, school holidays and accidents. Mothers are most often the ones expected to stay at home and care for their sick children. Whether they are students or working, this is usually accepted as a mother’s responsibility. Combining motherhood and studying without compromising the activities of either one is a great dilemma for student mothers. When a woman must focus all her attention on her studies, her behaviour may contrast with her traditional motherhood role, these role challenges cause women to abandon one role for the sake of the other.”

Dr Sophie Moagi, clinical psychologist in Gaborone says, “Students who are also parents face unique challenges as they pursue their education at the university level. They may also struggle with feelings of isolation from their peers, as they may feel less able to engage with peers outside of class or feel that fellow classmates can’t relate to their lives. When at home with their children, student parents may have difficulty getting work done or studying for exams as parenting needs are often unpredictable and require immediate attention.

Add sleep deprivation and lack of self-care to the mix and one can see why many student parents report feeling overwhelmed and burned out by their multiple roles. Student-parents need all the support they can get, it is easy to imagine a new parent who wants to appear confident and like they have they have everything under control may not want to ask for help. When a sibling tells a new parent “I am here for you if you need anything,” they are providing social presence support. This kind of support is about knowing support is available if needed, not about how much is actually given.”


Read this week's paper